How to Brief an Architect

Rob Rickey suggests a strategy to get the best out of your house designer.

When embarking on the most expensive custom product you are ever likely to buy, you need to feel you are getting exactly what you want. Architects and designers can fall into the trap of using ‘archi-speak’; worse, they can sound condescending and impatient for the client to catch on to their fantastic ideas.

You may have been thinking about your dream house for years, and have many things to tell your architect. You may have preconceptions about what the architect needs to know. It is useful for all parties to have a well-ordered description of what your hopes and dreams may be, and what you are prepared to pay for them.

Before meeting with an architect, it will be most helpful for you to organise all your information methodically, to separate what is an aspiration from what is a fact.

Problem Seeking – An Architectural Programming Primer* by William Peña was written 40 years ago in the United States, but it still provides an essential method for writing a brief.

Many people understand an architectural brief to be a list of rooms and sizes, but there is much more information needed for an architect to successfully address a client’s needs. Many architects still believe in the ‘inspirational’ approach to design and hope that the client likes the result.

At all times the client needs to clearly express their dislike of what they are seeing during the design process, and be willing to tell the architect why they don’t like it.

outdoor-area.jpg Picture: If you love outdoor living, the house must have strong connections with the garden. ©Nigel Rigden

Analysis vs Synthesis

In the process of creating a new house, there should be a clear distinction between writing the brief (analysis) and designing the building (synthesis). Not enough time and effort go into analysing what William Peña refers to as the architectural problem.

You cannot find a solution until you know exactly what the problem is.

In analysis, the parts are separated and identified; in synthesis, the parts are put together to form a satisfying design solution. There are five steps proposed in the book, and I would always recommend that clients start a scrapbook with these headings as a way of separating different but important kinds of information. The better you are able to tell an architect exactly what you expect them to do, the more likely you will get what you are looking for.

Five steps

The five proposed steps of Problem Seeking are:

1: Goals – What does the client want to achieve?

2: Facts – What is it all about?

3: Concepts – How does the client want to achieve the goals?

4: Needs – How much money, space and quality?

5: Problem Statement – What are the significant conditions and the general directions the design of the building should take?

Four considerations

There are four considerations, some of which get overlooked when an architect is keen to get drawing, which is after all what they do best. The four considerations are:

1: Function – What is happening in the house; what are the important functional relationships? Do you want the children’s bedrooms next to the parents or in a separate wing?

2: Form – What is the image this house will project? How will it relate to the site? What is the quality level you expect? What will the planners accept?

3: Economy – What is the initial budget? What will the operating and maintenance expenses be?

4: Time – How do you perceive the design relating to the timeline of history – modern or traditional? How long do you plan to live in this house, and how might it be adapted for the long haul? When do you want to move in?

This is a lot to take in, but just as design is a step-by-step process, so is the development of a brief.

How to begin? 

Get a scrapbook and put in the Five Steps headings:


redlandsI often suggest to clients that they write down a four-word brief for their house. Here is a brief I wrote for my own house, which was a low-energy retrofit:

• Fun • Food • Wellbeing • Economy

These were to be the benchmarks by which to judge the results, and to inform the design at each stage. Others may identify such qualities as light, space, view, flexibility or individuality.

You can use these goals (but only if you write them down) to test the design as you go along.

Picture: The author’s own renovated house in Crediton, Devon. ©Nigel Rigden


You can start with your site. I will not start a project without the legal boundary description and a topographical survey. Your architect will need these, but it doesn’t matter who commissions the survey. The survey, in addition to contours and surface features, should include services. You don’t want to accidentally dig up a live electric cable or gas pipe. You can add facts about the cost of similar projects to yours, which you can gather from magazines and online sources.

These numbers will be the basis for your decisions about what building contract to use and what quality level you want


concepts schematicThis is the fun part – you can add images of houses that you like, which show features that are important to you. If you are not graphically inclined, you can work with your architect to draw simple diagrams that express principles clearly. Architects are visual people and diagrams often translate directly into building forms.


This is the section that many think of as the brief because it includes space requirements. The UK housing industry sells houses by number of bedrooms, but builders do costing by square metres, so you need to get familiar with areas. Visit show homes with an electronic tape measure to see exactly how big different rooms are, and what your feeling is about them. An initial cost estimate analysis can be done based on two numbers : square metres (m2) and cost in pounds per square metre (£/m2). You must add the costs of professional fees, demolition, planning and building regulation fees and a contingency to that top number to arrive at a project budget.

Always keep in mind that the two big levers are cost and area – you can’t salvage an over-budget project by buying cheaper taps.


You may not want to think of your new home as a problem to solve, but writing down a few problem statements with your architect will ensure that everyone understands what you expect. At least write down one statement in each of the areas of consideration – this will help to avoid hearing “ but you never told me about that”. Here are some examples:


• As the clients are approaching retirement, the house must be future-proofed to ensure that they can live as long as possible in their own home.

• Because the clients love outdoor living, the house must have strong connections with the garden.


• The house wants to blend in with its surroundings;

• The house wants to stand out from its surroundings.

(See how important this might be)


• Because the client wants to contribute to the construction, the design must be easy to build and designed to allow for phased construction.

• In order to future-proof the house, it should have the lowest possible operating and maintenance costs.


• Anticipating becoming empty-nesters, the house must be adaptable for the clients’ changing needs.

• The clients must move in by Christmas of next year.

Now you’re ready to design a house. With all the most important ideas and needs committed to paper, your architect has a clear set of instructions.

Far from limiting creativity, this well-organised brief will allow the designer to focus on creativity while knowing that the fundamental elements are covered.

Rob Rickey is an environmental designer and a lecturer in sustainable construction at South Devon College:

* Problem Seeking – An Architectural Programming Primer  William Peña, (1977) Boston: Cahners Books International, Inc.


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